Posts Tagged With: numberjacks

The inevitable Doctor Who / The Prisoner thing

October, 2011. Emily and I are celebrating our anniversary in Harlech. The bedroom in our B&B is all frills, pink and a myriad fragile-looking ornaments. It is like Dolores Umbridge’s study. We go out for Indian food, wander round the castle and watch trashy TV.

Sunday morning the two of us take a hike in the drizzle over to the estuary. In the distance, Portmeirion looms: a picture postcard collection of patchwork models glued to the forest. We make it within throwing distance before the sand becomes too deep, sucking and gurgling. I suggest going back to the car and driving round to the village’s entrance, if she wants.

Emily smiles. “No,” she says. “I think I like it better this way. It’s more authentic.” And back we head, pursued by a large balloon.

The Prisoner is one of those shows that entered and left national consciousness without anyone ever really noticing. It was all going so well. Navy striped blazers? Check. The threatening, omnipresent Rover? Check. All this, and the show’s best-loved catchphrase: “I am not a number,” bellows McGoohan, running across a beach at sunset, “I AM A FREE MAN!”. It was the perfect soundbite to stick at the end of a newsgroup post, a middle finger extended eloquently against authority. Even Matthew Corbett was at it. (Sooty does The Prisoner. Wonders will never cease.)

These days everyone just uses the word ‘Sheeple’ and thinks they’re being terribly clever. These days, I’m having to explain what The Prisoner is to a whole new generation – actually two generations if you count my mother, who systematically denies repeatedly saying “I am not a number” when my brother and I were growing up despite my insistence that it was a stock part of conversation (along with “No” and “Were you born in a barn?”). Outside the family circle I’m met with a blank stare whenever I do that ‘Be seeing you’ thing. Honestly, Star Trek never had these problems.

Perhaps that’s part of it. Gene Roddenberry didn’t just create a TV show, he created an entire universe and filled it with planets and civilisations. The world of The Prisoner is comparatively small – micro, rather than macroscopic. It has to be: by its very nature the Village needs to be enclosed, and the bulk of Number 6’s adventures taking place there, while those that aren’t are usually hiding something. (‘Living In Harmony’ is about the best known example of this, predating the holodeck by a good twenty years and showing that there’s very little you can’t do with a few cardboard cut-outs, some mild hallucinogenics and a raid on the ITV props department.)

I’m not a big fan of the words ‘cult following’ – they seem to imply a kind of snobbery in one direction or another – but perhaps that’s the most appropriate terminology to explain the programme’s mass appeal among its fan base, even after all these years. Certainly there can be few programmes as impenetrable, and few endings as discussed and dissected. The Prisoner was either captivating (no pun intended), or challenging, or just plain weird, depending on the level of commitment you were willing to offer. It was uncompromising television that explained very little and then subverted what you thought you knew.

It’s the sort of programme I wish they’d make more often, but that doesn’t seem to be the way that the world works now: there is an expectation that every gap should be plugged, every flashback explained, every origin story given flesh. “Worst bit of nerd culture: the need to fill in the blanks,” tweeted Gideon Defoe on 21 September. “Ooh, the Kessel Run, sounds evocative, must see it in grindingly prosaic detail.”

Doctor Who fans are no better. It’s not enough for Turlough to have attended a private school while on the run from the authorities: said school now has to be established (step forward, Nick Briggs) as a school that deals especially with alien children, so we can know how he got there. It’s not enough for the Doctor to have left Gallifrey: we need to know why. And it’s not enough for the random women standing behind Rassilon to be whomever you’d most like them to be: we have to have fan fiction explaining who they are and how they got there and which of the high council they shagged along the way (because this is fan fiction, and thus Rule #34 applies in abundance).

There is an episode of Sherlock that annoys me immensely, because we get to see not one but three resolutions to the Sherlock Falls From The Roof story. One of them is (probably) the truth, although it’s told to us by a madman, which rather tests its narrative reliability. The others are fanwank – quite literally, as one of them seems to rely on a fan suggestion. It is possibly the most meta of all the Sherlock episodes, dealing as it does with the public reactions to the detective and how he interacts with his audience, allowing them to make up the history for him. There is a laziness and smugness about it that is unbecoming. Far better it would have been, surely to have the detective sweep back into Watson’s life and refuse to explain anything at all, even to the audience?

But a blank slate is maddening, and perhaps that’s the reason that The Prisoner is now called ‘obscure’ (one unnamed publication, three days ago). The planned origin story for Number Six’s arrival mercifully never materialised, and all we had to go on was that iconic opening montage, largely wordless: Patrick McGoohan drives his car, storms angrily in and out of an office and is then rendered unconscious in his London home before waking up on the Welsh coast. (In 1987, twenty years after The Prisoner, ITV launched Knightmare, in which a series of would-be adventurers ventured through an artificially generated dungeon. Every time a fresh room was entered the kid in the over-sized helmet would ask “Where am I?”, and watching years later it’s almost disappointing that the answer was never “In the village”.)

There is a rule about TV: give your programme a historical setting and you instantly sidestep the likelihood of it becoming dated (which is why Dad’s Army is frequently repeated while Bless This House is not). The Prisoner sidesteps this by giving the show’s location a timeless feel: there are elements of Connery’s Bond, and a Beatles track that plays over the final episode, but we could be watching this in any decade. Most of it works. The writing is consistently good, and the show takes risks that you generally don’t see in contemporary British TV (episode seven, ‘Many Happy Returns’, features no almost no spoken dialogue for the first twenty minutes).

If you’ve never seen The Prisoner I am about to ruin it for you, and I strongly suggest that you drop to the end of the section I’m just about to write, but we need to talk about ‘Fall Out’. Not every show is defined by its finale – The Avengers wasn’t – but when, in early 1968, Number Six was taken to meet Number One, a nation of jaws dropped. Everything about the programme’s closing instalment is baffling – the hooded rabble in the courtroom, the apparent resurrection of Leo McKern, the obfuscating speech by the judge, the song and dance, the jive dude…and fact that Number Six barely utters a word throughout, although on the few occasions that he tries the mob are quick to silence him.

Then there’s a huge gunfight and Patrick McGoohan in a gorilla mask, and then that long drive home, with Angelo Muscat closing the door. Roll credits.

There’s a legend that says that when the series finale aired, the public backlash was so ferocious that McGoohan had to flee the country to avoid the mob. I still don’t know if I believe that, but it makes for a nice story, and the sort of fitting scene that closes a docudrama – rather like Ed Wood driving away with Kathy just after the screening of Plan 9, oblivious to the reaction it presumably received. Certainly ‘Fall Out’ is one of those stories that remains impenetrable, perhaps the only episode of the series that was. It doesn’t help that Alexis Kanner is playing a completely different character to the one he played in ‘Living In Harmony’, and yes, I know this sort of thing happens in Doctor Who all the time without any explanation, but this was one occasion I really felt we deserved one.

Seriously. God knows what’s going on here. I mean, I get the rest. I don’t care why Number 6 / John Drake / whoever the hell he was resigned, or what the purpose of the Village really is, but I can at least follow the narratives – even ‘A, B and C’, which is a head trip best enjoyed under the influence of alcohol, or at least a notepad and biro. But then we get here, and all hell breaks loose. You thought the Twin Peaks finale was weird? You don’t know you’re born, kid, although right now I’m not entirely sure whether Laura Palmer was either.

Gareth says that it’s simply a question of punctuation: when McGoohan asks (every week) about the identity of Number One, he’s told “You are Number Six”, but if you add a comma it reads “You are, Number Six”, which makes a whole lot more sense, or at least as much sense as anything in The Prisoner ever really did. Whether there’s a conspiracy, a case of mistaken identity, or whether the whole thing was simply a fugue state in the mind of a delusional man we’re never really sure.

[Spoilers more or less end here.]

Perhaps it’s better that way. Perhaps giving an answer to a story like this is the quickest way of killing it. That’s what happened in Lost – a programme that attempted to explain its own mythology and came apart at the seams as a result, to the extent that no one really talks about it now. Perhaps that’s what McGoohan learned during his time on the show: by steadfastly refusing to explain what’s going on, you give people something to talk about for the rest of their lives.

That’s a lesson that the fans, if not necessarily the writers of Doctor Who will eventually lead to learn as well: it is a children’s show, and thus deserves a degree of transparency, but a programme can become consumed by its own mythos and wind up drowning in it. As I write this I am attempting to convince a well-meaning chap in Dakota that when Timothy Dalton spoke about the two dissenters being “like the Weeping Angels”, he didn’t mean they were actually Weeping Angels, and no, we do not need to know where the Weeping Angels came from. Similarly we don’t need to know the Master’s backstory. Nor what Rory got up to in the two thousand years he was humping Amy round Europe. Nor about the adventures the Doctor and Martha had while holed up in 1969 (particularly whether or not they had sex, an inexactness which some fans seem unhealthily desperate to have resolved). We watch a show that has a question for a title: questions do not always need to be answered, and not everything needs to be connected.

Maybe that’s why I do things like this: if Doctor Who aficionados are obsessed with in-universe continuity, perhaps this is a drive to counter-balance that. It’s funny, because if there’s one thing The Prisoner really doesn’t have, it’s a sense of continuity. One clever conceit the show employs is to pit Number Six against a succession of chair-dwelling superiors – everyone has their favourites, and most of them are Leo McKern. It allows for an ever-changing dynamic: you want panicky incompetence, you cast Patrick Cargill (‘Hammer Into Anvil’); if it’s polite dignity, you cast Anton Rogers. In the background, Muscat lingers and serves tea, leading to speculation that he may be more than simply a butler. The shifting cast reminds me, for obvious reasons, of a certain Other Programme, which led to this.

The new Number Two.

Logically the only possible response is “Who is William Hartnell?”. And logically the only possible response to that is “You are Colin Baker.” Or, if you want, “You are, Colin Baker.” Which is closer to the truth than anyone might care to admit.

Meanwhile, over in the Village, the poor old War Doctor is ruminating.

Now, John Hurt as Number Two. That would have been something.

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Call off the search (the Brian of Morbius edition)

In the first instance, I’m going to copy-and-paste the paragraphs below from a similar post (with quite different specifics) over on one of my other blogs. So apologies in advance if what you’re about to read is familiar, but I couldn’t think of a better introduction. Scroll down to the search terms if you want. Go on. I don’t mind.

The other week, SJ and I were having a conversation about post popularity – not a period of time that chronologically follows popularity, but popularity of blog posts. “I wonder,” she said (I’m paraphrasing), “just how many of my so-called followers actually read what I’m writing. I’ll bet a fair number of them are spam”.

I have the same thoughts – you wonder how many of the people who blindly click the ‘follow’ button are actually digesting your missives and thoughts. I know a good number of you do, and for that I am grateful. To the rest, well, you’re excused. Lip service is part of the WordPress way, it seems, and I’d be lying if I said I had never followed blogs that I don’t read properly.

Among the regular readers, of course, there are the people who drop in because they’re looking for something. Sometimes some of my posts can provide answers – other times, judging by some of the search terms, they’ve just happened to tap in a number of words that the Googlebots determine exist in random places on different parts of my home page. So the words ‘vaseline’, ‘pornography’ and ‘live goats’ are in completely different and entirely unconnected posts, honest guv. And the money was just resting in my account.

dont-blog

Every so often, I’ll scan through the site stats and make a list of some of the more interesting search terms that people have been using on their wayward journey through cyberspace – a journey that led them here, however long their rest stop. Here’s a selection from the last quarter, presented as is, including typographical errors.

– gay lesbian “brianofmorbius”
– clara tardis meh meh
– ghostbusters cardboard house with kinder eggs
– why would I give her my screwdriver
– kiefer Sutherland as morbius
– scooby doo is stupid

I’m not sure what to make of the Ghostbusters query. Nor indeed can I fathom out that first term. Did I say anything particularly profound / stupid about lesbianism that would warrant someone to look me up, either to gasp in awe or in horror? And speaking of stupid, who the hell came up with that last one? Scooby Doo is a great show. It’s a little formulaic, but that’s why it’s lasted for this long and in spite of Scrappy Doo. I would blog about this further but I’m still trying to work out whether Kiefer Sutherland would make a convincing Morbius (and I’m assuming that the Morbius in question was the Marvel vampire, as opposed to the renegade Time Lord).

But. But! That’s only the half of it. Because I’ve discovered that a bunch of search engine terms take the form of questions. (Actually, the fourth entry in that list above is technically a question, but it’s also a direct quote, and I presume it was searched with that in mind.) And I’m figuring that if you don’t try and address what your would-be readers want to know, aren’t you missing out on something? I have therefore picked up on a few of the more interesting questions I’ve had this last quarter and reprinted them below – again, verbatim – with my answers.

– on flesh and stone you can see the doctor wearing a suit when the angel had already taken him away

Indeed you can. This is one of those ‘puzzles’ the chief writer set us throughout series five, and when it happened in ‘Flesh and Stone’ I was willing to let it go, as the concept was relatively fresh. This has been covered in more blogs than I could count, so it seems somewhat redundant to include it here, but basically the Doctor’s got his jacket back because it’s not the same Doctor. It’s the Doctor from a few weeks later, travelling backwards along his own timeline just before he’s obliterated from existence. (Yes, I know it sounds silly. It really was.)

5_-doctor-2-appears-jacket

– brian eyes burning like fire

Bright. BRIGHT EYES. I know Art Garfunkel’s diction was waning even in the 1970s, but sheesh.

I know it's scrappily done, but it almost works. Almost.

I know it’s scrappily done, but it almost works. Almost.

– does anyone understand numberjacks

No one understands Numberjacks. They just think they do. On the surface it’s an accessible children’s show about elementary mathematics problems that are solved by anthropomorphic numbers who live in a sofa. But beneath this CG-driven exterior there’s a sinister Groundhog Day-like undertone to the whole thing, as epitomised by the fact that the room they leave is constantly empty, the Numberjacks have to display the profile of every villain they face every time, and the fact that the cat is always sitting on the sofa. There’s also the white elephant that is the buddy block, the fact that the characters are apparently able to hack local CCTV (and also have cameras in places that really shouldn’t have cameras) but can’t tell the difference between a circle and an oval – oh, and the enigma of the dancing cow.

So no, nobody’s figured it out, and anyone who tells you they have is either hopelessly naïve, or just lying. (We’ve tried, though. Gareth recently asked me whether I thought Number Four was ever sad that no one was able to give him a high five, as well as observing that pink was an unfortunate choice of colour for Number Three.)

numberjacks_footer_784_242

never confuse efficiency with a liver complaint meaning

Oh, look, it’s quite simple. Katie Nanna is perpetually grumpy, correct? Her sternness and strictness were qualities that the Banks evidently looked for in their incoming nannies, requiring as they did someone to keep the children in line. But George Banks blamed her health – in particular the itching, swelling and fatigue that are early signs of liver damage – and posited that this was what was making her cross, not a natural disposition towards effective discipline.

Katie Nanna. Fond of the gin, that one.

Katie Nanna. Fond of the gin, that one.

– a town called mercy shit

Yes. Yes it is.

'A Town Called Mercy'. A low point, at least until 'Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS'.

‘A Town Called Mercy’. A low point, at least until ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’.

– if a weeping angel sees the silence will it forget?

Ah, the old Angels vs. Silence question, a match-up rivalled in sheer tedium only by the prospect of the Daleks vs. the Cybermen. Anyway, Joshua asked me this a while back, so I’ve had time to think it over. If an Angel is able to move towards the Silent, unobserved, then it’ll be able to attack as it normally would. The moment the Silent turns to see it, the Angel freezes like it normally would. But I’m not convinced that the Silence’s weapon of choice (that stupid Force Lightning) would have any effect on granite, so the best thing to do would be to just bow out gracefully. Observe this hastily-sketched diagram.

Angel-Silence_diag

Presumably the Silent would need to manoeuvre itself round the back of the Angel so that it could no longer be observed, keeping an eye on it at all times (and seeing as the Silence do not appear to blink, it would have a distinct tactical advantage in this department). When it leaves the room, the Angel unfreezes, but presumably forgets why it came in there in the first place, which is something that I gather happens a lot when you’re extremely old and prone to seizing up at the most inopportune moments.

– scooby doo boobies

Dude. Seriously. Get help.

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We want information

OK, question number one: who the hell is watching this?

At last count (this morning) I’d had over 47,000 hits. That’s treble the count of anything else I’ve done. In YouTube terms, of course, it’s chicken feed. The stats are gratifying, but it’s no Double Rainbow or Duck Song. There are days when I envy the creators of those videos and wish I could produce something that would genuinely go viral. And then I remember that YouTube is a big place and that everyone is shouting at once.

Still. It’s quite a lot for my little corner of the web. Laura – who works in my team – has a ready answer: “drunk students”. And she’s probably right. I don’t know why there is such a strong connection between attendance at an institution of higher education and a sudden urge to delve into the cupboards of nostalgia, or even contemporary viewing. Put another way, I have no idea why students went crazy for Teletubbies, except that to a certain extent the Teletubbies – who loafed in a communal household eating vast amounts of toast and custard (and apparently nothing else), sleeping excessively, watching too much TV, occasionally venturing outside for a spot of dancing or game of volleyball, babbling away in an indecipherable language and having to hire a cleaner to keep the premises tidy – were perhaps a better representation of student culture than anything from Ben Elton or even The Young Ones.

I actually asked Laura about this just now, and she associates it with being on the cusp of adulthood but not quite beyond adolescence, “which means you regress. It’s also about shared experiences with a new peer group, and finding those common bonds. Plus eighty per cent of the time you’re spending the morning sleeping off a hangover, so it’s that or Diagnosis Murder“. All of the above would explain why, some fifteen years ago (and still living at home, studying as I did in my home town) I had a Teletubbies poster on the study door. It would explain why Bagpuss is so  enduringly popular. It would also explain the viewing figures for this particular concoction. Or perhaps it doesn’t. Either way, it’s odd.

For a good while, Joshua had a thing about Numberjacks. It stemmed from an episode where he saw Numbers 3 and 5 become trapped inside a puzzle bubble, and at the time he was experiencing something akin to claustrophobic reactions (becoming deeply uncomfortable at several points near the end of Finding Nemo, for example). By the time this had passed, Daniel – his youngest brother – was also finding it slightly unpleasant, happy to sit in the lounge armchair and watch pretty much anything on CBeebies until the opening credits rolled, whereupon he’d request that the channel be changed. I have no idea why this is, except that it probably stems from the fact that Numberjacks is quietly creepy. There is something frightening about it, for all the offbeat slapstick. For one thing, there are numerous periods of quiet and silence and several pregnant pauses – an almost languid pace in today’s heady world of fast cuts and rapid plot development. (Have you seen Postman Pat recently? It’s like an action movie. It’s like watching The Transporter in Cumbria.) There’s also a refreshing lack of background music, which is nice.

For another thing, the villains are downright sinister. There’s Spooky Spoon, a shrieking anthropomorphic baking implement; the slimy freshly-picked-bogey that is the Problem Blob, and the calm, Simon Pegg-like Puzzler. Then there’s the Numbertaker, who looks like Simon Day from The Fast Show, dressed up for a cult funeral where everyone wears white. Even the Numberjacks themselves are a little bit freakish. And yet it’s extremely popular and I have to admit I enjoy it very much: the central problem-solving concept is well-explored, the stories are structured without becoming dull, and the fourth-wall-breaking at the end of each episode is quite effective. I also think there’s a market for an adult version of Numberjacks, complete with Pi, differentials and the occasional quadratic equation.

Such was our familiarity with Numberjacks (when you have three boys you sort of have to learn these things), it’s probably no wonder that when Emily and I finally sat down to watch The Prisoner at the beginning of last year, the connections were made almost instantly. To create a society when everyone is referred to solely by numbers…well, let’s just say the mashup was inevitable. And it’s surprising that no one had thought of it before – I think it was Emily who said “I am not a Numberjack, I am a free man!” (I’d favoured the more predictable “I’m a Numberjack and I’m OK”), and it was one of those quips I was sure would have been made in abundance already, but I could find comparatively little connection between The Prisoner and the Numberjacks online, which is an ideal opportunity for flag-planting, if you get in quick.

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know my hang-ups with the overused ‘iconic’, but I am prepared to make a welcome exception for The Prisoner. It is wonderful, wonderful television – by turns baffling, captivating, innovative and groundbreaking. (It is impossible to truly appreciate the Austin Powers films without a working knowledge of the show.) It wasn’t afraid to deviate from its formula – see the western episode, for example – or resort to ridiculous plotlines for the sake of producing a decent hour of television (the bedtime story springs to mind). It was clever, funny, exciting (the first time we see Number Six trying to escape the Village is still extraordinary over forty years later) and decently performed. The final two episodes alone are extraordinary simply by virtue of being utterly different – a heavy-handed psychological war fought between Number Six and Number Two (and so horrible to film, apparently, that it gave poor Leo McKern a nervous breakdown, or a heart attack, depending on which version you read) – followed by the final instalment, which reveals absolutely nothing of any real value and which was received so negatively that Patrick McGoohan had to flee the country to avoid the mob. ‘Fallout’ is quite brilliant, in its own way, but I don’t pretend to understand it, and anyone who tells you he’s figured out what was going on is frankly telling you a whopping great lie.

Technically, this was an easy one to put together. It was just a question of matching the opening theme with a montage of the Numberjacks on their adventures (and synching the lightning with the ‘Brain Gain’ scenes). The trickiest part was sourcing enough wordless footage of Numberjack Six wandering around the suburban areas where the show’s action takes place. By sheer luck, I managed to find footage of him actually saying “Where am I?”, which matched up perfectly with McGoohan’s delivery in the much-quoted opening scene. The net result was quite satisfying, if a little off the wall. I played it to Gareth, who said that my only mistake was including Number One, “and he wasn’t even <massive spoiler>”. Which is a fair point.

Written feedback (i.e. user comments) has been scant and spam-like, and people generally seem to be confused. I can’t help thinking that the bulk of people viewing this are the folks looking up Numberjacks on YouTube, and then clicking on the related videos button and wondering what in the name of Holy Moses they’re watching. Which is fair enough. I think I had exactly the same reaction the first time I watched The Prisoner, and thus the world is as it should be. Be seeing you.

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